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Updated: Apr 5, 2023

THOUGH HE COULD NOT DENY HIS GENIUS or its effects, poet William Wordsworth had small love for Shakespeare. This makes Wordsworth's judgment trustworthy. Concerning Shakespeare and the sonnet form, he said, “with this key he unlocked his heart.” I empathize.

I have come late to the sonnets, but in an Augustine “late have I loved thee,” kind of way. And I am glad for it. Age and seasoning has its advantages. But other than the usual, the power sonnets, like 18, for instance, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” or 30 “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past,” 116, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,” 17, 130, and select others (there's a whole scripture there), the Elizabethan stage held more fascination for me. Shakespeare preferred being known as a poet.

Who will believe my verse in time to come,

If it were filled with your most high deserts,

Though yet heaven knows it is but as a tomb,

Which hides your life and shows not half your parts.

An introduction to Shakespeare, and any first love effects most often begin with the stage. In high school our first exposure usually begins with a sleepy video of ROMEO AND JULIET. At thirteen, I went with my eighth grade class to Rollins College (Orlando) to see a production of AS YOU LIKE IT, but I was too distracted with a new girlfriend (or the prospects of) to remember much.

Shakespeare is (present tense intentional) a master illusionist. As celebrated as he is, he is invisible, playing, as he most often does, his own ghost. In the first productions of HAMLET, arguably the play he loved most, the actor Shakespeare played the ghost of Hamlet’s father. According to the intimations of 17, words have the ability to “hide” or entomb a life, to use his image, to preserve it in time, to show what it wants to show, and conceal the rest, the very thing of which Shakespeare is master. The line gives us cues to where he hides best and most.

If I could write the beauty of your eyes

And in fresh numbers number all your graces,

The age to come would say 'This poet lies:

Such heavenly touches ne'er touch'd earthly faces.

My own fascination, like my affections, were immediate and without repent. It is an old love (like the one I have for the woman in the video). That said, as I now read and absorb the sonnets, Wordsworth’s opinion makes better sense to me. To unlock the heart is to know its secrets, or as close as we may come, to hear its soft inner voice, a thing love alone can achieve, in any context, and the sonnet is just musical enough to do the heavy lifting.

My guess is that you have to be in love to write the sonnet, or a kind of love. The love song of its day, the sonnet is perhaps the truest case, at least directly, of Shakespeare in love (with the glaring exception of his latter tragedies, starting with HAMLET). Finding and exploiting the music of a passion, keeping it close to the surface without spoil. I am not sure anything arouses genius more than love, whatever form that love may take, or exercises it as thoroughly.

So should my papers yellow'd with their age

Be scorn'd like old men of less truth than tongue,

And your true rights be term'd a poet's rage

And stretched metre of an antique song:

I have spoken candidly concerning my own writing, that being in love is an advantage, fuel for the engine that drives it. “No tears in the writing,” someone somewhere noted, “no tears in the reader.” The same is true for fascination or love. “No fascination in the writer, no fascination in the reader,” and so on. "No love in the writer . . . " A love that costs (as if there were any other kind). Immovable. Unshakable. Without repent. As in, "Oh no! It is an ever-fixed mark, that looks on tempests and is never shaken." S116.5-6

But were some child of yours alive that time,

You should live twice; in it and in my rhyme.


It is my hope that as you approach the sonnets, and I encourage you to do just that, you may be touched by the thing that drives them, the love that gives them speech and animation. Like the Scripture, like love, this kind of awareness comes by revelation, not by explanation. Having written biography, spending time with the necessary ghosts, and anticipating my first work of historical fiction in the very near future, to get to know an individual, sometimes the most formidable strategy is to discover what he or she loves, then follow the trail it leaves, sometimes no more than a faint hint of perfume or the outline of a footprint. Tyndale certainly proves that, for whom concealment was not just a science, but a defense. To know what he loves is to approach the center, to know the God he burned for (both literally and figuratively). I think Shakespeare, Tyndale’s heir, does the same. He may not show himself, but he is most willing to show you where to look anyway. He can run, but he cannot, well, you know.


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